Chiyono said, “I have heard that the Buddha emits rays of light from a tuft of white hair between his eyebrows, illuminating all ten directions. Gazing at them is like looking at the palm of your hand. Can I point to my lowly self and say that I have Buddha nature or am I deluding myself?
The nun replied, “Listen carefully. The teachers of the past have said that people are complete as they are. Each one is perfected; not even the width of one eyebrow hair separates them from this perfection. All sentient beings fully possess the wisdom and virtues of the Buddha. But because they are overcome by delusive thoughts and attachments, they cannot manifest this.”
Chiyono asked, “What are these delusive thoughts?”
The nun replied, “The fact that you adhere to the thoughts that you produce conceals your essential Buddha nature. This is why we speak of ‘delusive thoughts.’ It’s like taking gold and making a helmet or a pair of shoes out of it, calling what you use to cover your head a ‘helmet’ and what you put on your feet ‘shoes.’ Even though you use different names for the products, gold is still gold. What you put on your head is not exalted. The things you put on your feet are not lowly. If you apply this metaphor to Buddhism, the gold symbolizes Buddha—that is, realizing your essential nature. Those who are misguided about their essential nature are what we call sentient beings. If we say someone is a Buddha, their essential nature does not increase. If we call someone a sentient being, their essential nature does not diminish. Buddha or sentient beings—people take the point of view that these are two different things because of delusive thoughts. If you don’t fall into delusive patterns of thinking, there is no Buddha and also no sentient being. There is only one essential nature, just as there is only one complete world although we refer to the world of the ten directions.
“The Buddha once said, ‘When you get away from all conditions, then you will see the Buddha.’ He also said, ‘You must throw away the dharma.’ What is this so called dharma? If you really want to know your true nature you must orient yourself towards the source of delusive thoughts and get to the bottom of it. When you hear a voice, do not focus on the thing that you are hearing, but, instead, return to the source of your own hearing. If you practice in this way with all things you will definitely clarify your true nature.”
Chiyono then asked, “What is the mind that fathoms the source of things?”
The nun answered, “The question you have just now asked me—this is an instance of your thinking. Turn to the stage where that thought has not yet arisen. Encourage yourself fiercely. Not mixing in even a trace of thought—this is what we call fathoming the source.”
Chiyono then said, “Does that mean that no matter what we do, as we go about our daily life, we should not observe things but rather turn towards the source of our perceptions and unceasingly try to fathom it?”
The nun said, “Yes, this is called zazen.”
Chiyono said, “What I have heard brings me great happiness. It is not possible for me to practice seated meditation night and day since I am always fetching logs and carrying water, and my duties are many. But if it is as I have heard, there is nothing that is impossible to accomplish in those twelve hours. Encountering the source of my perceptions both to my right and to my left, according to the time and according to the circumstances, how could I neglect my duties? With this practice as my companion, I have only to go about my daily life. If I wake up practicing and go to bed practicing, what hindrance can there be?” With this she joyfully departed.
The nun called out here name as she walked away. Chiyono answered and turned around. The nun said, “Your aspiration to practice is clearly very deep and unchanging.”
Chiyono replied, “When it comes to practice, I’ve never been concerned about destroying my body or losing my life. I’ve never even questioned it. If it is as you say, I must not diverge from practicing the totality of the Buddhist teaching even for a little while. All actions are a form of practice. Why be negligent?”
The nun said, “Just now when I called out ‘Chiyono,’ why did you adhere to the sound of my voice? You should have just listened to it and returned directly to the source of perception. Never forget: Birth and death are the great matter. All things pass swiftly away. Do not wait—with each in-breath, with each out-breath, rely on your practice at all times. When something is in your way, you must not grieve or linger over it, even though you may have regrets later. Hold on to this firmly.”
After receiving this lesson, Chiyono sighed and fell silent. She had not gone very far before the nun again called out here name. Chiyono turned her head slightly but did not allow her ears to become attached to the nun’s voice, returning directly to the source of her perception. In this manner she continued her practice, day after day, month after month. Some days she returned home and forgot to eat. Sometimes she went to fetch water and forgot to transfer it to a bucket. Sometimes she went to collect firewood and forgot that she was in a steep valley. Sometimes she went all day without eating or speaking or went all night without lying down. Although she had eyes, she didn’t see and although she had ears, she didn’t hear. Her movements were like a wooden person. The assembly of nuns at the temple began to talk about her, saying that realization was near at hand.
The elderly nun heard the talk and secretly went and stood outside her bedroom. Behind a bamboo screen with her hair piled high on her head, Chiyono sat facing the wall. She looked accustomed to sitting, like a mature practitioner. She sat having called up the world of great truth in which all delusions have been abandoned. Turning her consciousness around and looking back on herself, she practiced the most important thing according to the conditions of the moment, guarding her practice without ceasing. Her body was that of a woman who truly displayed the grit of an adept. Even in ancient times such a person was rare. Those who lack such urgency of purpose are shameful.
The nun then asked her, “What place is it that you face?” Chiyono looked back at her then turned back around and sat facing the wall like a tree. The nun then asked her again, “What?! What?!” This time she did not turn her head. Like that, she lost herself in zazen.
In the eighth lunar month of the following year, on the evening of the fifteenth, the full moon was shining. Taking advantage of the cloudless night sky, she went to draw some water from the well. As she did, the bottom of her bucket suddenly gave way and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this she instantly attained great perfection. Carrying the bucket, she returned to the temple.
Previously, she had called the elderly nun who had been her guide and said, “My sickness is incurable and I will die during the night. I want to shave my head and die that way. Will you permit this?” The nun shaved her head.
Furthermore, the elderly nun had heard Wu-hsueh say, “Chiyono may have lowly status but her character is not that of an ordinary woman. Her aspiration is deep—it far exceeds that of others.” She decided Wu-hsueh was right.
What she went to look for herself, Chiyono made a standing bow and said, “You have taught me with great kindness and compassion. As a result, during the third watch of the night, the one moon of self has illuminated the thousand gates of the dharma.” When she finished speaking, she made three prostrations in front of her teacher and then stood as befitting her place.
The nun said, “You have attained the great death, the one, in fact, that enlivens us. From now on, you will study with Wu-hsueh—you must go and see him.”
After this Chiyono was known as Abbess Nyodai. When people came to her with their questions, she would invariably answer, “The Buddha whose face is the moon.” She met with Wu-hsueh and received transmission, becoming his dharma successor. Her dharma name was Mujaku Nyodai. She was the financial patron of the temple of Rokuon-ji in the Kitayama district of Kyoto in th province of Yamashiro, now called Kinkakujoi.
Chiyono’s enlightenment poem:
With this and that I contrived
And then the bottom fell out of the bucket.
Where water does not collect,
The moon does not dwell.
Mugai Nyodai (d. 1298)
Mugai Nyodai, known also as Chiyono, was one of the first Japanese women to receive transmission in Zen.. While she is well known through her founding of many women's Zen monasteries, she is relatively unknown to those of us in the West who are more familiar with the Patriarchs of Zen like Hui-neng or Bodhidharma. There are many profound and moving stories in the history of Zen, but this one is particularly moving in its parallels to Hui-neng's similar humble beginnings.
While everyone's enlightenment experience is peculiar to them, the steadfastness of purpose and intent is common to all who carry their practice to that length. This is a very inspiring story of someone with that thirst having that meeting with someone who can truly help. For many of us today, we may never meet someone as helpful as the older nun. However there are teachers and teachings present in everyday life if we know how to open to them. For those who meet that rare teacher who can truly help, that is a rare blessing.
All these teachers of the past are here today as well. Each time we truly open to their messages, we have the ability to take the next steps they point to. It all seems to hinge on our ability to connect with the directions; who are they really talking to?
“Listen carefully. The teachers of the past have said that people are complete as they are. Each one is perfected; not even the width of one eyebrow hair separates them from this perfection.”
What do we do with these teachings? Can we take them into each day and express them through our actions? What if the teaching depended on us whether we had a teacher or not?
May our Way be clear!